The English a fection for miniatures has a long history. It may be that those who live upon a small island take a delight in small things; it may also reflect a preoccupation with the details of practical work-manship.
In the Anglo-Saxon period there was a distinctively English school of miniature painting, which can profitably be aligned with the extraordinary attention to detail in certain Anglo-Saxon poems; even the mythological bird the phoenix is depicted in the form of the miniaturist’s art. “His head is green behind, exquisitely variegated and shot with purple. Then the tail is handsomely pied, part burnished, part purple, part intricately set about with glittering spots. The wings are white to the rearward.” 1 In the tenth-century manuscripts executed in the “Winchester style,” the miniatures are characterised by “the fluttering draperies, and the heavy colours and magnificent gold”2 where the native passion for ornament is exercised in a small space. In the late Anglo-Saxon miniatures, too, can be found that “interest in exact detail and love of pattern”3 which continued over the centuries of English painting. The point may be that miniatures are the appropriate medium for such interests, and that as a result they are more likely to become components of a national art. In the twelfth century there were “great miniaturists” 4 who travelled round the country, visiting scriptoria and other centres of monastic production, and who in the process created a genuinely national style.
The tradition continued in the illuminations of the thirteenth century, with vigorous human figures “fitting admirably into the tiny space allotted to them”;5 the notion of general activity within constricted bounds may of course have been a social principle before it became part of an aesthetic. A survey of painting of the thirteenth century has also drawn attention to the prevalence of “small fantastical initials” of a “decorative nature” as “a central and inherent part of the artistic development of the time”;6 many tiny monstrous figures within them derive from “deep obsessions in their creators’ minds,” and possess an “intensity” which reveals them to be “a central preoccupation of the creative imagination.” 7 This desire to miniaturize obsessions, or to reduce “grotesques” in size and scale, is interesting if perplexing. Could it possibly be related to the pattern of English detective stories in the twentieth century, when evil and murderous wickedness were seen to operate in small and cosy country villages? In the thirteenth century itself the vogue for the miniature was transposed to other arts and other disciplines; we may note the taste of Edward I for “miniaturised, encrusted architecture”8 and in the literature of the period for the “thumb-nail sketch” and for scenes “visualised like a miniature.”9
In the fourteenth century “English medieval painting at its best was never monumental in scale” but found its finest expression in manuscript illumination.10 The embroidery known as opus anglicanum, the psalters, the small diptychs in ivory or alabaster, and tomb sculpture “essentially miniature in its feeling,”11 are all aspects of the same living tradition. One historian of painting has suggested that “the products of the Gothic Age in England . . . are most impressive on a small scale,” and that there was “no such tradition of monumental scale as steadily developed elsewhere”;12 this may of course represent some diffidence or embarrassment in the native artistic temperament inhibiting the grand or glorious gesture. It does not preclude vitality of form, or liveliness of detail, but exhibits rather “a sense of what can be done in a small space.”13 It is an insular art.
Certainly it is the context for an extraordinary flowering in the art of the miniature portrait. The miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard has been designated as “the central artistic figure of the Elizabethan age” and “the only painter . . . whose work reflects, in its delicate microcosm, the world of Shakespeare’s earlier plays”14 where wit and fancy strive for mastery. Hilliard confessed that he wished to capture and to evoke “these lovely graces, these witty smilings and these stolen glances which suddenly, like lightning, pass and another countenance taketh place.” The expressiveness of line, the ornamental pattern of the surface, and the brilliance of colour, all bespeak a native purpose. In this sixteenth-century art, “the English had no rivals”; 15 its loveliness and delicacy materially affected larger compositions, and it has been well said that “the miniature set the style for oil painting and started a typically English school”16 where ornate decorative effects and flat linear patterning are once more the characteristic elements. The dominance of portraiture, in this “English school,” need scarcely be emphasised.
It is no surprise, either, that in the seventeenth century “the art of the miniaturist flourished.”17 Courtiers, according to Sir Kenelm Digby, “are ever more earnest to have their Mistresses picture in limning than in a large draft”—a limner, derived from luminer, having originally been an illuminator of manuscripts. The achievement of Nicholas Hilliard was followed by that of Isaac Oliver and John Hoskins, and that of Samuel Cooper, who for miniatures “was esteemed the best artist in Europe.”
The obsession with the miniature continued well into the eighteenth century, when “miniatures were in fact by far the most numerous kind of portraits produced.”18 It is entirely appropriate that they became a profitable branch of commerce, and this practical benefit may be adduced from the fact that miniatures sprang as much from the skills of goldsmiths as from the art of the manuscript illuminators. It is again characteristic that the miniature, perhaps “because of its commercial nature . . . rarely shows any form of complex psychological exploration.” Here is a further definition of the English imagination. It has been said that when Delacroix arrived in London, in the spring of 1825, “English painting he found admirable when on a small scale.”19 The fidelity to minute detail, so redolent in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, found its counterpart in the poetry of Rossetti and Tennyson with its concentration “on minute details of the natural world.”20 And then of course the twentieth-century Australian-born composer Percy Grainger wrote a suite for orchestra entitled “In a Nutshell.”
One of the most poignant and powerful images within English literature is that of the mustard-seed, or the grain of sand, or the hazel-nut, as an emblem of the spiritual universe. Blake afforded it immortal status in “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour
It might be described as the prophetic credo of the English miniaturist. But intimations of that vision were vouchsafed to English mystics of an earlier date. In The Ladder of Perfection the fourteenth-century Augustinian canon Walter Hilton is intrigued by the “kernel hidden within the shell of a nut” only to bypass it as an image of divine intercession; Julian of Norwich is shown “a littil thing” no bigger than a hazel-nut “in the palm of my hand” and knows it to be an emblem of the universe for “it is all that is made.” In “The Prioress’s Tale” of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Virgin Mary places “a grayn” upon the tongue of a murdered infant, allowing the child to sing sweetly; this “grayn” or seed has been variously interpreted as a “grain of Paradise” or a rosary bead, and later commentators have disputed whether it be “the smallest, least valuable object” or “a symbol of immortality.” In truth it is both. In a less sacred context Robert Burton’s Anatomy prepares a disquisition on the nature of eternity with the sentiment that “if you did but first know how much a small cube as big as a mustard-seed might hold. . . .” In David Copperfield “the complete idea of snugness . . . lay in a nut-shell.” The same preoccupation can be glimpsed within Marlowe’s “infinite riches in a little room” and the cry of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myselfe a King of infinite space”; the soul of Chaucer’s Troilus gazes upon “this litel spot of erthe” as if in the English imagination there is some affection for that which is small and yet also infinite. Blake saw the little fly “Withinside wondrous & expansive” and in Richard Dadd’s visionary painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, the little figures are grouped among hazel-nuts which might have fallen from the hand of Julian of Norwich.
A liking for the miniature has become something of a national speciality. We may note “the growing pleasure of English writers in creating fantastic miniature worlds which work on their own,”21 and a group portrait of the English poet as miniaturist may be glimpsed in the disparate work of A. E. Housman and Hilaire Belloc, Edward Lear and Walter de la Mare. The Anglo-Saxon riddle and the nineteenth-century limerick are not so far apart. (Is the limerick an English invention? The language, at least, seems designed for it.) A recent study of “fantasy literature” also proposes the world of Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House,” “where men are tiny, and flowers, grasses and insects are vast,”22 as well as that of the metaphysicals where beautifully shaped tears become worlds or tidal oceans. Consider Donne’s “The Flea.” Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a poem in which “littleness becomes the controlling theme,”23 and the landscape of Lilliput is too well known to require farther rehearsal. The pleasure in creating “fantastic miniature worlds” may have something to do with childishness, or with arrested sexuality. It may also be associated with the creation by the young Brontë sisters of the fantasy realms of Gondal and Angria, where a small and enclosed world serves as a perfect habitat for the English imagination. Of more obvious import, however, is the work of Lewis Carroll, whose shrinking Alice seems destined to drown in a pool of her own tears. This delight in littleness is also aligned to “nonsense” verse. Is it part of some diffidence, some embarrassment at “sense,” or of some reluctance to make any grand statement?
In a celebrated passage Jane Austen adverts to “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush.” Her remark is complemented by Thomas Hardy’s apophthegm that “it is better for a writer to know a little bit of the world remarkably well than to know a great part of the world remarkably little.” In England it is believed that to know one’s locale thoroughly is to understand the forces of the world or, even, of the universe itself.